Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
On Dr. Stephen Hawking
This past week, the world lost both a beautiful mind and a person of great warmth and humor: Dr. Stephen Hawking.
According to an obituary in the New York Times, “the Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author who roamed the cosmos from a wheelchair, pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity, died early Wednesday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76.” (link added)
I am not a scientist, just a “lay person” with an average interest in some of the subject matter of which he wrote and lectured. I am also a fan of his wonderful documentaries on cosmology and the wonders of the universe (here’s a link to one, “Stephen Hawking’s Universe,” PBS, 1997).
The fact that lay people like me have been able to become acquainted with Hawking’s work, if just to a small degree, is a testament also to his ability to translate the complex ideas and concepts populating the rarefied atmosphere of that intellectual landscape he roamed so that we can understand such things a little bit better.
And I am also a fan of his delightful, dry wit that seasons both the writings and the lectures he leaves behind.
What stays with me most, however, based on knowing what I do about Dr. Hawking and his work, is something–free will,* to be exact–I think a lot about but from a spiritual interest.
Hawking was also interested in spiritual matters. He pondered, wrote, and lectured on not only physics but also metaphysics, specifically, the events of–and surrounding–the creation of all the things he passionately loved and explored.
The creation idea is treated perhaps most specifically in one of his (and co-author Leonard Mlodinow’s) book, The Grand Design where they present what they call the “M Theory”. Regarding the metaphysical aspect, the two put it, succinctly, this way: “We will describe how M-theory may offer answers to the question of creation”’ (p. 8).
As to exactly what “M” stands for, it is not completely evident–not even to Hawking and Mlodinow. As they explain, “String theorists are now convinced that the five different string theories and supergravity are just different approximations to a more fundamental theory, each valid in different situations. That more fundamental theory is called M-theory, as we mentioned earlier. No-one seems to know what the ‘M’ stands for, but it may be ‘master,’ ‘miracle’ or mystery.’ It seems to be all three.” (p. 116-117)
And there, at book’s end, they leave it, after exploring, throughout, the possible, multiple reasons converging at the moment of the biggest bang.
But that’s just my lay person’s understanding.
Sadly, at Hawking’s passing, some are belaboring what they presume was his spiritual condition, i.e., atheism, but we don’t really know that.
We only know this: Dr. Stephen Hawking proved by his life and work that, despite physical challenges that might have turned many others bitter, he never stopped thinking, pondering, exploring, and opening his mind to more.
Perhaps the “more” he needed spiritually–the “more” many find in Jesus Christ, through Whom, from the Christian worldview, “all things were made“–was Dr. Hawking’s final summation before he drew his last breath. We just don’t know.
But how did Dr. Stephen Hawking help me better comprehend “free will”?
*On Free Will
Here’s my connection.
Whether or not Hawking ever came closer to the ultimate metaphysics of the physics of how things came to be originally, before matter, before time, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever the man had an Olympic gold-medal-caliber mind. (And, of course, that outrageous sense of humor.)
There is absolutely no doubt there is much that we–even those of us outside of science–can learn. And appreciate. And gaze at, in awe.
Whether or not we have yet to, or ever will, enter a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In a relationship with Christ, however, I believe there is also a lesson on free will to be considered by observing the life of one of the world’s most brilliant individuals.
I believe it is this.
If, indeed, God could be fully understood by delving into the deepest mysteries of the universe (macro–or micro), that is to say, if it were possible to comprehend God fully from empirical evidence only (for philosophies tend to follow the wonder over what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched), then we would have caught God in a lie.
If you think about it, if we could comprehend fully all there is to comprehend, then logically, we’d have to say, “Okay. Fine. You are who you say you are, God. The evidence is in. There’s no disputing, now. The smartest minds say so. So I have to believe you.”
Frustrating and disappointing, though, at the very least.
Really maddening, to say more.
Completely mind- and spirit-blowing to say the most!
I mean, can you hear it? “AND SO, MISTER GOD, WHAT IS THIS ‘FREE WILL’ OF WHICH YOU SPEAK? HUNH? WE HAVE TO BELIEVE YOU, NOW! IT’S RIGHT THERE IN THE TELESCOPE AND OVER THERE IN THE MICROSCOPE…!”
And right there, He, of the Utmost Biblical Stature, summarily BUSTED!
(…watching out for lightning bolts just now…)
The thing is, however, we still have options: this theory, or that one? Master, miracle, or mystery?
I mean, if even the brightest minds can’t figure it out…?
There’s still hope for free will to be true.
And for this other thing about God to be true, too: He is love.
Think about this also (if you want): If God is love, how would forcing us to believe He’s real (and all the rest of it) be very loving?
No “freedom to choose” in that, at all.
But here’s where I tie this in with how Dr. Stephen Hawking furthered my understanding of both free will and love (our free will and God’s love being tightly woven together in my mind): what is yet beyond the comprehension of even our most capable intellects–doing the most extraordinary work of gathering and gleaning empirical evidence–is intended to be so.
For now, anyway
So we (still) get to choose.
And God waits.
What do you think?
Here’s where I get this idea:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth… (Psalm 19:1-6, and there’s a lot more revelation where that came from).
Composer Keith Green, 1953-1982, put it this way (he got his inspiration from Psalm number 8):